Market Insight from Ruben Rodriguez, President, MSC Cruises USA

Trend-wise, MSC Cruises has definitely seen a lot more interest in international travel within the past two months. “That’s particularly important as our brand is all about international travel,” stresses Ruben Rodriguez, president, MSC Cruises USA, based in Fort Lauderdale, FL.

MSC Cruises, which Rodriguez describes as the “third largest and fastest growing cruise brand,” is owned by MSC Group, a diversified shipping conglomerate that was founded and is headquartered in Switzerland.

Last week, Travel Agent chatted one-on-one with Rodriguez about marketplace trends, how new New York homeporting in 2023 will help the line grow its U.S. footprint, and differentiators from other brands. Here are highlights. 

Return to Cruising 

MSC Cruises was the first major (big ship) line to restart cruising in the Mediterranean in August 2020. In turn, it relaunched from U.S. ports in summer 2021. Asked about progress, Rodriguez says: “We’ve come a long way.”

He notes that all MSC Cruises ships are now operating across the world and “we’re seeing growing demand, growing occupancy and we’re doing particularly doing very well in the Mediterranean. We have ships at full occupancy [there]. We’re also growing rapidly in the Caribbean.”

Finetuning "The Right Match"

Rodriguez also stresses that MSC isn’t a cookie-cutter American brand. “We are a brand that is very European,” he emphasizes. Plus, he explains that while most lines have a diverse mix of crew nationalities, MSC Cruises also has a high diversity of guests coming from countries across the globe, more so than most other lines.

Rubén Rodríguez
Ruben Rodriguez, President, MSC Cruises USA (Photo by MSC Cruises)

“Our brand is all about international,” he says. “We’re talking about Americans coming to the Mediterranean, Europeans coming to the Caribbean, Brazilians coming to the Caribbean” and so on, he says. “We’re seeing that cross border [traveling to board a cruise ship] grow a lot in the past two months.”

Roughly 50 percent of guests traveling aboard MSC Cruises’ ships sailing from U.S. ports are international—hailing from such countries as Mexico, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Italy, Colombia, Spain and France, among many others. That’s in addition to the other half, which are American cruisers. That varies, though, by voyage and home port (see further down in this story for more about that). 

Yes, things were a bit rocky immediately after the line’s entry into the U.S. market earlier in the 21st century. The line has since honed its messaging and fine-tuned its advice to advisors on how to best match American guests to the product. Simply put, Rodriguez says his line is seeking Americans excited to meet people from all over the world, and guests who truly value that diversity: "For example, we have a lot of families who love it that their children are in the kids’ clubs mixing and mingling with other children from around the world."

The reality is that guest satisfaction scores the line is now posting from PortMiami and Port Canaveral cruises are dramatically better than 2017. In addition to enhanced messaging and better targeting of clients, the line has also focused on hiring people who have experience in leading hotel operations within the U.S. market.

That process started in 2017 “and by 2018 our scores were much higher,” Rodriguez explains. After the restart, by summer 2021,"we had the highest guest satisfaction scores that we had ever seen.” He credits the leaders of the brand in the U.S. over the years with that improvement. He also points to MSC Cruises’ investment in more training and development of its staff in all areas to service the U.S. market; greater investment in creating a better embarkation experience for guests (a new Miami terminal, for example); and more investment in entertainment.

As for the new Miami cruise terminal (see rendering below), it is expected to be completed by December 2023. It will be capable of handling three latest-generation ships at the same time, handling up to 36,000 passenger movements per day.

MSC Cruises' PortMiami Terminal rendering
MSC Cruises' new PortMiami terminal will open in late 2023.  (MSC Group)

U.S. Leadership

In May, MSC Cruises USA brought aboard cruise industry veteran Lynn Torrent as executive vice president and chief commercial officer. Her arrival overlaps with this summer's planned departure of Ken Muskat, chief operating officer for the U.S. operation, who is leaving to pursue other opportunities. 

“The transition is going very well,” says Rodriguez. “They’re both fantastic professionals and Ken has been a wonderful leader at MSC and he was our chief operating officer for the last several years." Rodriguez says the two executive positions are different. He also had hoped that Muskat might accept another position with the brand or MSC Group globally.

While that hasn’t happened at this point, through August “he’s still helping in the transition and, honestly, we’re still trying to convince him to stay with MSC Group in another role," Rodriguez says. “He’ll always be a close part of the MSC family.”

As for Torrent’s responsibilities, “Lynn is not COO,” he notes. “For us, Lynn is very focused on integrating our commercial functions. She’s our chief commercial officer and we’ve never had someone in that role before.” Torrent currently is integrating marketing, sales, the contact center, revenue management and all the line’s commercial functions within the U.S. market.

In addition, the line announced in late July that Koreen McNutt would join the brand this month as senior vice president and commercial sales officer—reporting to Torrent. She’s now leading trade efforts.

“Frankly, we’re investing a lot in our trade sales capabilities, our marketing capabilities and we’re focusing on those areas that are really important to us,” Rodriguez adds.

A Third U.S. Home Port

Currently, MSC Cruises sails from PortMiami in South Florida and Port Canaveral in Central Florida. In April 2023, it will begin new home porting in New York City, too.

The line plans diverse sailing options from New York, including seven- or eight-day Caribbean voyages, six-day Bermuda sailings, 10- and 11-night Canada/New England cruises. “In the winter, we’ll have 10- and 11-night southern Caribbean,” he adds.

New York—and the tri-state area surrounding the city—is already one of MSC Cruises’ top source markets without having a ship home ported there yet. “So, it’s already very important to us, but we’re still capturing a very small portion of the New York travel market,” he adds. MSC Cruises believes that with MSC Meraviglia homeported at New York and sailing from the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal, it has a good chance of reaching an even broader Northeast market. That could attract more guests from such cities as Boston, Hartford and Philadelphia—places from which it’s easy to reach New York by car or train.

Rodriguez says he thinks that from New York the “long Canada itineraries and maybe some of the Caribbean itineraries will be 60 percent American and 40 percent international.” The six-day cruises from New York to Bermuda, though, are expected to be comprised mostly of Americans.

In terms of guest mix in the U.S. market, it does vary by port and length of voyage. For example, the mix of Americans versus international guests is 50-50 on seven-day MSC Seashore sailings from Miami, while, in contrast, the three- and four-day cruises from Port Canaveral tend to be 80 to 90 percent Americans aboard.

New Ships, New Home Ports

Rodriguez stresses that MSC Cruises did not scrap any ships during the pandemic, as many lines did. It also didn’t postpone any orders. “We have a very aggressive order book,” he notes.

For example, two new ships are joining the fleet this year. MSC Seascape is launching in late 2022; it will be named in New York on December 7 before heading to Miami without guests to begin its first revenue sailing on December 11. 

In addition to guests from the U.S., those voyages will also appeal to European, Mexican, Brazilian and other international guests, believes Rodriguez.

Changes in Guest Behavior

How has the cruise guest changed from 2019? “Especially when we started in 2021, but it’s also still true, the market remains very concentrated on past cruisers,” Rodriguez tells Travel Agent. In 2019, MSC Cruises was attracting a lot of people who had never cruised, particularly Millennials and young families who wanted to try it as a vacation.

But emerging from the pandemic, particularly in 2021 and even in the first half of this year, people who hadn’t cruised before weren’t quite ready to cruise, he acknowledges. “So, the market has been very concentrated on past cruisers,” he says. “But in the past several weeks, we’re starting to see more people who are new to cruise and we need them and want them. We need that growth in the market.”

But the high percentage of past cruisers—still continuing this year—has a lot of implications, according to Rodriguez: “Frankly, they’re more demanding. They have higher expectations. And it’s harder to give them an excellent cruise, and fortunately we are and we’re getting great scores.”

That said, he says that those cruisers have a different cruise style than typically has been the case in past years. “When you get to the ports, a number of them just stay on the ship,” he explains. Some have already been to the port, so they don’t get off. Or, if they do get off, they may only get off for a short time, a couple of hours, perhaps, but not a full day ashore. Others just want to experience the ship.

During the restart of operations and even still today, Rodriguez has seen a rise in interest for shorter cruises and drive-to U.S. ports. “That’s why as part of our restart, we launched Port Canaveral as a second port for us.” 

Ocean Cay and Sir Bani Yas

MSC Divina
MSC Divina is shown above at Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve.  (MSC Cruises)

Today, MSC Cruises is offering more three- and four-day sailings from both Florida ports. All go to Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve, which many past guests haven’t yet experienced; the island was open only for a couple of months before the line ceased operations as the pandemic began. So, now that’s something that repeaters want to see and do.

Rodriguez says it’s not akin to other cruise line private isles with air-conditioned shopping areas, swimming pools and waterparks. Instead, it’s about nature and traditional Bahamian culture. The big draws are the soft sandy beaches and eco-activities.    

Across the globe, another island style experience for guests is Sir Bani Yas, U.A.E, where MSC Cruises has an exclusive long-term berthing agreement. So, when its ships call, that Middle Eastern island is reserved for exclusive use by the line’s guests.

From Rodriguez’s perspective: “That region is a high priority for us.”

Close-In Bookings, Back-to-Backs

Another trend that began in 2019 and continues today is that “people are booking very close in,” says Rodriguez. So, even now, the line is booking many cruises for later this month and in September. That’s certainly helping to fill ships. It’s a trend other lines too have mentioned. But all lines including MSC Cruises are hoping more bookings shift further out as the recovery continues.

With strong pent-up demand and, particularly with air travel woes this year, some consumers also are seeking to lengthen their vacation. “We’re definitely seeing growth in back-to-back cruises,” says Rodriguez.

From Miami, MSC Seashore does alternating east and west itineraries and he says many people are combining both for a 14-day cruise. In Port Canaveral, Rodriguez says guests are combining a seven-night cruise with a three-night cruise too.

New Sister Line

The MSC Yacht Club, the exclusive "ship within a ship" enclave within MSC Cruises' ships, certainly elevated the line’s onboard experience. Now, MSC Group also has a separate, new luxury brand, Explora Journeys. How does Rodriguez see the relationship shaping up between the two sister brands?

“We’re excited to welcome Explora Journeys to the family; we’re very close to that management team,” he says. “We see it as very complimentary. What often happens, especially now, is that people who love to cruise, they do want to have different experiences for different occasions.”

He notes that an affluent, empty-nester couple going on vacation—if it’s just the two of them—may desire to sail on Explora Journeys. That’s a more intimate experience with smaller ships and calls at smaller ports. “If you want to have intimate luxury experiences, Explora Journeys is perfect,” he believes. In contrast, though, Rodriguez says that same couple—during that same summer—might also choose MSC Cruises and book an MSC Yacht Club stay if they are traveling on a multigenerational, seven-night family vacation with children and grandchildren. 

MSC Cruises ships have the family draw of diverse, big-ship amenities—such elements as kids clubs, waterparks, multiple entertainment options, multiple restaurants of all types, and so on. The ships also feature itineraries at large ports, often with a larger range of port experiences. “But that couple still wants to have the luxury of MSC Yacht Club, the service of yacht club, the high touch,” he says, plus diverse accommodations options. So, he believes the occasion will dictate which sister brand best fits the vacation planned by a luxury client.

Looking Ahead

What does Rodriguez hope that people understand about the line’s differentiators? First, he cites the European heritage, secondly the line’s international character. 

Those two factors influence everything from ship design to culinary offerings (such as French night or Spanish night in the main dining room) and the retail shop experience featuring European brands. And the guests could be Spanish, British, Italian, French, German, Mexican, Brazilian, American, Canadian or South African, to name just a few of the sourcing markets. “So, we have people from all over the world, and the Americans that sail with MSC Cruises are excited to meet people from across the world," he stresses.

A third differentiator he points out is the MSC Group’s commitment to sustainability. The line's goal is to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, and Rodriguez says: "We’re making rapid progress.”

The new MSC World Europa, for example, will not only have LNG (liquid natural gas) propulsion but fuel cell technology to reduce emissions.

The U.S. market for MSC Cruises is “growing pretty rapidly,” he says. Putting new ships in the U.S. marketplace has helped. In addition, the Mediterranean has grown in popularity and more U.S. travelers are heading there. President Joe Biden’s lifting of the COVID-19 arrival test for entering/re-entering the U.S. has helped significantly, he says.

Moving forward toward 2023, “we’re proud of who we are,” he says. “We’re not trying to be an all-American brand. We are a brand that is very European, and we obviously want to execute that in a way that appeals to Americans but we have strong European design, European dining, European entertainment and we are targeting guests that value that.”

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